Feeding Big Dogs

Cinnamon working out in the field.

To guard and herd our livestock we have a pack of large livestock guardian dogs. They average about 80 lbs as adults and are very physically active so they eat a fair bit of food. The entire group weights about 500 lbs for the seven which includes one puppy which is at about 40% of his likely adult weight. Yesterday someone asked what we feed them. It is less a question of what we feed them than of what they eat. Their diet is a combination of the following.

Kita training to eye the sheep.
  1. Dry dog food – about 0.25 lbs/dog/day on average but it varies with what else is available. Sometimes we have the dog food out and available and they eat what they want of it which isn’t very much. They go through a 50 lb bag of dog food in about 10 to 20 days between the seven of them. That isn’t much for big active dogs. Ideally I would like to drop the commercial dry dog food completely but there are times when we don’t have enough of the other good foods so they get ‘cereal’ which is what the dry dog food is the equivalent of. The biggest reason I would like to drop dry dog food is worries about the cases of contaminated food like recently happened from one dog food company that killed many dogs. That is scary. The second reason is it is one of those, “who knows what is in it” things – it certainly is not as good as their other foods. The last reason is buying commercial dog food is expensive. Commercial dog food is one of the things the dogs call “Not Meat” with an extra negative. They’ll eat it but it is not a favorite.
  2. Critters – Mice, chipmunks, squirrels, birds, snakes, etc that they catch in our fields and around the animal areas makes up a surprisingly large amount of their diet. I have watched a single dog scarf down fourteen mice in under half an hour out in the field. They are very efficient at catching mice, voles, snakes (think spahgetti), etc. Working as a team they clean up the chipmunks – one chases the chipmunk into it’s hole while the other is at the back door ready and waiting. Then they switch. Hunting while they’re out in the fields watching over the livestock is one of their great pass times. I have read that in the wild small animals like mice make up most of their diet. In doing so they clean up small pests and predators which would otherwise be a problem on the farmstead as well as a potential reservoir of rabies.
  3. Eggs from our hens which we feed them some every week. I have read that they can digest the egg whites better if they are cooked. Sometimes I’ll cook them if I have a whole lot of eggs I want to feed out but usually they get the eggs raw in a bowl. I teach them not to eat eggs in the shell as I don’t want them stealing eggs from nests.
  4. Dairy – Milk, yogurt, cottage cheese & cheese trim some of which they snarf when the livestock are eating and some of which we feed the dogs. We get cheese trim from the local dairy. Small pieces of cheese make great training treats as do cubes of meat and peanuts.
  5. Bread which they snag when the livestock are getting fed occasional treats such on loading day each week.
  6. Their share of the harvest when we butcher livestock. This includes the heads, feet, often the skins which the dogs love, organs which are another favorite of theirs, the bones after we make soup as well as any trimmings. They eat all species, ducks, chickens, guineas, pigs and sheep. Growing up I was taught not to feed chicken bones to dogs but it is a non issue at least with our dogs. Thinking about it, they eat birds in the wild and the field. I feed the bird bones to the dogs both uncooked and cooked. Big animals I prefer to slaughter in the cold weather because then it is easier to keep large amounts of meat and trimmings fresh for the dogs since the outdoors is a giant refrigerator for a goodly part of the year. Anything from warm weather slaughter must get fed more quickly or frozen. I suppose I could can dog food, after all we can a great deal of food for our own use. That would be a fair bit of work and during the summer months the mice are plentiful.
  7. Lastly the dogs eat the dead. This may gross out some of you. I hope you aren’t having breakfast but the dead are food. I would not feed them diseased dead but that isn’t something we’ve had. When livestock are born sometimes there are some that don’t make it. Out of 66 piglets born in six farrowings this winter there were an additional three that were still born and six that didn’t make it. Generally there is a congenial defect and they never would have grown up healthy and vigorous. Nature culls these often as still births or they don’t make it through the first 24 hours. This is a fact of life. Kita, Saturn and Cinnamon visit the farrowing spaces and clean out the dead. The sows never contest it – they don’t want the dead around either. This is a part of the job of the dogs and it prevents disease from developing within the livestock should a dead piglet or chick get undiscovered by one of us. It also prevents flies. The dogs never hurt live animals under their care, rather they are very protective of them, but if an animal is dead they clean it up. Interestingly, Kita brings it to me if she finds it herself and shows me the body. This is handy as it gives me a chance to check it over and evaluate what the issue was that caused the death.

Coy, the grand-sire of our pack, during a retirement day on Cape Cod.
Unfortunately this is one of the only photos I have of him.
When he was younger and not so beat up by the rough life of ranching
he looked just like Cinnamon and Napoleon.

The dogs get a good diet, not all that different from what we eat although we eat a lot more veggies than the dogs and I skip the dead piglets and chicks. I also prefer my meat cooked. As we improve our year round farrowing we’ll be doing slaughter year round and that may increase the move away from commercial dry dog food.

Related: Moving Dog Dishes

5°F/-9°F, Light snow flurries, Sunny, very high winds, bad wind chill

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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30 Responses to Feeding Big Dogs

  1. RL says:


    Sounds like you have a great group of dogs there.

    When we first moved to Wisconsin I was given two Siberian Huskies puppies, both brothers, one of which we gave to a friend. Later we took him back due to personal problems the family was going through. The one we kept was to be my all around the farm dog. He accompanied me everywhere right from the beginning. I welcomed having a Husky in this northern climate figuring he would do well in inclement weather which has suited him just fine these past years. His name is Apollo. Once Apollo got to be around 1 year old he started getting aggressive with the animals. Then the last straw was when I caught him trying to hamstring the horses. We were keeping other peoples horses at the time so couldn’t have the liability of Apollo running loose any longer. From then on we never let him run again. From time to time he would get loose and every time since he has killed something. I do take him on long walks but, that is his only taste of freedom. He has a strong killer instinct, which disappoints me because he is a very nice dog otherwise. Beautiful to look at. His brother was a killer too. He gobbled up some ducklings once which got stuck in his gut and since we couldn’t afford surgery to remove them we had to put him down.

    All this to say I am amazed that your dogs don’t go after the live animals after eating fresh meat like that. I’m really impressed.

    Maybe you have told before, I don’t know, but what kind of dogs are they?


  2. Patti says:

    I have seen dogs that have been fed fresh meat turn to killing but I don’t think they had the training yours have had. I am not advocating comercial dog food but if one does not have the time to fully train their dogs it might be best?

  3. RL, our dogs are a mixed breed. There is a bit of black lab, a bit of german shepherd and then a lot of other.

    As to the issue of them eating the livestock, part of that is they grow up around the livestock so they have familiarity and part is they learn from an early age that it is to be protected. We and the older dogs model the behaviors. As they become able they spend more time in situations where they could easily kill but don’t. It is tricky when they are puppies being around chickens because chickens are just soooo tempting. Some of the dogs never harm any livestock and then there are others like Killer Kita whom it takes significant training to sublimate their natural instincts – but it was worth it as she is now a wonderful guardian dog.

    Patti, there is definitely a place for commercial dog food. It is cheaper than meat unless you have a source of extra meat like we do when we slaughter. I would not be able to afford to buy meat to feed the pack. The fact that they delight in those parts of the slaughter that you and I don’t want makes for a great symbiosis. Otherwise it is cereal, er, I mean dry commercial dog food for dinner. :) Dog food is also easier to store since it is dry and does not go bad. The inspiration for this post was a question someone asked about natural dog food diets.

  4. Anonymous says:

    While researching a raw foods diet I learned that bird bones only splinter after they are cooked. My dog too has had no trouble with raw poultry.

  5. Anon, I’ve read and heard the same since childhood. It may well be true of some breeds of dogs. Ours eat raw, cooked and souped poultry bones without a problem. This is probably one of those, “Don’t try this at home!” things. :)

  6. brandy says:

    Walter, thanks for the information. All of the information that Ive read has been very pro raw food feeding(some say chicken bones are fine some are against) but most of what I read makes sense to me. Its funny that you should mention mice as a food source because my dog used to catch them in an awful house I used to live in, infact the mice got into her kibble and I suspect made her ill.
    Obviously I wont be able to feed my dog 100% naturally(although Im sure she would LOVE to get her teeth around some of the local squirrals!) Thanks!

  7. Anna says:

    God Walter but your dogs are beautiful animals!

  8. threecollie says:

    That is a very interesting post. It sounds as if your dogs live a truly ideal life from the dog point of view.

  9. patina says:

    your blog entry is full of great information. the marketing department at Petco is probably trembling with fear! people spend huge amounts of money on commercial grade food and treats for their animals, believing the nutritional hype on the labels. it’s like mcdonald’s for dogs, maybe worse. nature is in balance at sugar mountain farm.

  10. HomemakerAng says:

    my husband says this wouldn’t be the place to take a Sunday walk

  11. HomemakerAng says:

    i should clarify that we mean, your dogs are the protectors of your farm and we wouldn’t want to mess with them :)

  12. Leslie says:

    Walter, in your “spare time” (HA!) you could write a book about livestock guardian dogs. Get Holly to illustrate it.

    You could retire off of the proceeds, and live in the country and make your own schedule and not have to commute or answer to some boss. It’d be GREAT, I tell ya!

  13. Anonymous says:

    I wrote Walter an e-mail to ask about the origin of his dogs. He was very kind to write me back in a few days. He asked me to post it as a comment so others could see the response, so I am adding it here. My questions are in bold below.

    Hi Walter,

    As someone who is planning to start his own small farm, I have truly enjoyed your writing about Sugar Mountain Farm. I have also read with particular interest your posts about your dogs. Truly fascinating the work they do.

    One thing that I’ve wondered about (and couldn’t find an answer after reading almost all your posts), is what made you decide to breed your own farm dog?

    Just getting a dog at the pound is iffy. First you need to select for dogs with the proper inclinations and physical traits. Then the dogs really need to be raised with the animals they’ll protect for the best results.

    Why not go with one of the existing breeds?

    We had a starting dog that simply showed up and began doing the work. In a way that may sound like a violation of the above but he demonstrated his ability and got to stay on. We have many dogs that get dumped here. From all of those one was the right dog and got selected so it really is a demonstration of the rule rather than a violation of the rule.

    It is clear to me that you use a true multi-purpose dog, but would not a Greater Swiss, or Giant Schnauzer, or similar breed have met your needs?

    I’m not a huge fan of the ‘breeds’ because in a great many cases they have been so selected for one trait that they have problems. Additionally, what were once working dogs have become show dogs and lost the traits that made them good farm dogs before. Specifically with big dogs, in many pure breds they often have hip problems. Our dogs are a mix of breeds and thus have the hybrid vigor – they have none of the problems that come with the pure bred lines.

    One of the characteristics that our dogs have that you don’t see in a lot of the breeds is the thick double coat of fur. This makes them particularly well adapted to our cold winters. They prefer being outdoors and the cold doesn’t bother them. A roll in the snow is a great pleasure for them. Many breeds can’t really take the cold so that would be one selective force pure bred or mixed.

    Then there is the issue that our foundation sire simply showed up and did the job. We could have looked for a pure bred to breed him with but a pure bred what??? :) Coy looked like Cinnamon who you’ll find our our pages. Basically a red thick furred German Shepherd sort of looking dog – breed “Other”.

    Then there is the issue of money. Buying pure bred breeding stock is expensive. I have bought some very expensive things over the decades but loath to spend money if I don’t have to. My mother says I’m a cheap SOB. But then I learned it from her. :)

    And when you decided to “build your own”, how did you get started?

    With Coy he simply showed up. His mate (1/2 lab, 1/2 german shepherd) was given to us but I was never able to train her sufficiently – she had spent her first several years tied and without much human interaction – she never got verbal communications. More importantly she loved porcupines way too much to live here. But she was a good mother and produced Cinnamon.

    By the way, the dogs look awesome.

    Thanks, I’ll tell them you said so. :)

    I realize you are very busy, but if you get a chance to write me back or post a message at your blog about it, I’d be interested in knowing how it all came about.

    Can you ask your question here so others can share in the response: [Note: posted under dog article]

    Thanks, Jake

  14. Anonymous says:

    I like your blog it has a lot of good information. Try treating your big dogs with some Gourmet Biscuit treats. Yummy

    God bless

  15. Lee C says:

    There is a lot of confusion about a species appropriate diet for dogs. The “why” is that we have crossed the line between science and prolific industry propaganda. Since the 1950s vast sums of money have been poured into shaping public perception because the profits are enormous. Not to mention that “we the peopleâ€? have a tendency towards anthropomorphism, and convenience is a driving force.

    For unbiased scientific information see the article:

  16. kathy says:

    Having fed raw to dogs for over ten years, your dogs are eating a great diet. Keep it up. I imagine they even get some big bones to chew on as well. How long do they live? What do you do with the extra puppies? Do you sell them to other people looking for livestock guardians? Do you do anything special to imprint the dogs to the animals they will be looking after, ie. putting the puppies in with the chickens or lambs when they are 6-8 wks old? I am wanting to start my own small farming venture and would like to use a livestock guarding dog for my chickens and goats, hence the questions.
    Great Site! I also want to home school my daughter. You have really got it going on.
    God Bless.

  17. Hi Kathy,

    We only have a litter every several years and there is a long list of people hoping for a pup or trained dog from future litters for their farms.

    The dogs are raised around the livestock so they imprint on the animals. Then as they get older the pups are trained side-by-side with the adult dogs who help teach the pups.

    Go for it on homeschooling your daughter. It’s a wonderful thing. Officially the statistics in Vermont are that about 10% of kids are homeschooled, and about 15% in our town, but the real numbers may well be twice that as I know of a lot of people who just do it. Homeschooling produces a wonderful closeness in the family and the kids get to do a lot more real world stuff. Homeschooled kids also tend to score very high on the tests. People are always remarking how polite and social our kids are.



    • La Sonya Luther says:

      Are you still adding names to your waiting list for puppies as I mentioned in a previous comment would love to be able to have one or two of these puppies on our farm.

  18. Back Stabbath says:

    Wow. You live what I consider almost the ideal life. I’m 17 and I dream of living in the US or Canada in a rural place and owning some land for a smallholding. Your dogs are perfect, got good smart wild instincts but are still pets, and they live in a perfect environment.
    I currently live in Ireland, in a crap place. I hate it here. I try to grow veg with what I’ve got, but weather, soil and space are against me. Not great hunting here either. I’m a country girl for sure and I love doing stuff outdoors, even if its just getting wood for the fire.

    Its cool that your kids are home schooled, I would like to have my kids with me at home, helping with stuff on the farm and avoiding the bullsh*t and timewasting that comes with school!

    Awesome blog,
    Good Luck!

  19. emily says:

    your dogs are so beautiful. that first pic with it staring straight at me is so chillingly beautiful. the color is of the dog red but that dog look all wolf. i am amazed that they work for you on the farm. i would think they would huff and puff and blow all the piggys down! emily

  20. Patricia says:

    So if you dogs eat the dead, do they also eat mortalities from disease? I’m bettin’ you probably don’t have a lot of disease issues. I’m asking because I recently lost my sow and all of her piglets (stillborn). It appears she had an infection and the piglets had been inside her, dead and rotting. Her lungs were also spotted everywhere with red blood-like spots. The vet wanted an awful lot to come out and take a look, so I go back to the internet. I can’t afford vets. I probably can’t afford pigs. But… I would like to know what’s in my meat when I eat it. The endless battles. Hubby cut up the sow in parts and it’s in a salt brine now. I know it’s contaminated for human use, but what about dogs? Our thinking was that, in the wild, coyotes, wolves, and dogs seem to find the grossest dead thing they can find and eat it, and roll in it. Seems to me they have tougher stomachs than we humans.

    • I only feed the dogs healthy mortalities. That may sound like an odd juxtaposition but what I mean is mortalities that would not have any negative health impact on the dogs. Okay things include a pig that dies of a prolapse or was born weak. I would not feed infectious meat that had bacteria or viruses that could transmit disease. Those I would compost where the high heat of the pile would sterilize it. Yes, in the wild the cousins eat things that are beyond that but as long as we have other options I try to avoid it. I suppose you could think of it as a sliding scale. If you were hungry enough you would eat things that you would not eat when you have plenty.

      There are some good resources on the web at ThePigSite and MerckVetManual.

  21. Daniel says:

    I live rural and have a pack of dogs. Mine are rescues of many breeds and dispositions. Like you I have decent dog food out and they eat any of the dead and a lot of cast off food. Fresh road kill is also a fav. I have never had an issue with bones or any such problems. They keep the yard and fields clear of most vermin. The Dalmatian is an excellent mouser. Like a ghost in the wind she is death to all small non family furry animals.

    Our dogs are good with all the livestock and most people. I am very weary of people. If my dogs bark at the gate with tails in danger mode I will not let the people on the property. Period. They are on the hunt and watch 24/7.

    In my pack we have amazing longevity. My head bitch, Ms. Honey, an Australian Shep, died at 17 with cancer. Buddy was almost 18. Good food, and basic care. They are not livestock, they are family. Lots of raw food. Lots of human grade food. Dogfood is poison. We were at our old place in the desert in SoCal when the contaminated dog food started to kill dogs and cats. About 2 month before that I noticed we were not going thru any dry dogfood. They had actually stopped eating any brand of dog food I bought them. So, I noted this, called the vet and made human grade food daily.

    It was a little late for the one dog. He died of renal failure. The dog food companies did nothing. The rest of the pack were fine. They knew the difference of good and bad food. Since then I am very aware of what they WILL NOT EAT! If they will not eat food, I do not. I find that as of late they do not like a certain brand of crackers, some breads I no longer buy. But they gobble up the home made food.

    Dogs are very smart. Listen and watch. Often they know more about the farm and the health of the animals than we do.

  22. Circe says:

    I’m so happy to have found your Web site! I have been tossing my dogs the dead bodies of the roosters that I cull, and so many people have told me that I’m going to turn the dogs into chicken killers. I always say that my dogs are smart enough to know the difference between the dead birds I give them and the live birds I value and need them to guard. It’s so nice to read your writing and feel validated. :)

    I have a group of mixed-type dogs (Pyrenees, Dane, Lab) as companions and guardians to my goats, chickens, and geese

  23. suzanne northcutt says:

    Loved reading all the comments about the mix breed guardian dogs. We have mixed breed guardian dogs too. One of them is a totally unlikely candidate – a rat terrier/Chihuahua mix. But he’s alert and always on the prowl. Last week he really impressed me. A bald eagle had swooped down and was gliding about 3 or 4 feet above the ground with it’s talons stretched out in front of it chasing my mama hen. He would have caught her before I could have ran out the door, but, little Jacob was on the scene and was jumping in the air attacking the eagle from behind. The eagle/chicken/dog race lasted about 10 seconds and covered quite a bit of ground. But my little dog wouldn’t let the eagle get any closer than several feet as he kept jumping up and attacking the eagle. The eagle finally gave up. Yes, mixed breeds can be amazing guardian dogs. I also have an Australian shepherd mix who is awesome too. :)

  24. traye says:

    Our big lgd are Great Pyrenees and the male is definitely a chow hound. It’s funny you say “the dogs eat like us but with less vegetables,” he saw me pick a turnip and toss it into the paddock with the pigs. It was a light bulb moment for him and he now digs and eats turnips lots of them.

  25. R J says:


    Have you ever come across a dog that not just chases down and kills coyotes, but eats them too?
    Female mixed breed [Kuvasz/Maremma/Pirenees] just over 1 yr old that patrols 160 acre property that gets fed a good quality dog food but likes to eat grouse and rabbits too,
    if she can catch them.

    • That is what our dogs do. I’ve seen them kill and devour coyotes. No professional curtesy at all. The most dramatic time was years ago when a young coyote, maybe 35 lbs, came into our pasture and I watched two of our dogs confront it while the third circled round to behind the coyote, lunged forward, grabbed the coyote by the neck and threw it up in the air breaking it’s spine. All three dogs then pounced on the carcass and devoured it. All I found later was a small fragment of jawbone.

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